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At Casa di Mazzaro, a lesson in Moroccan cooking

The St. Petersburg space hosts classes in a variety of cuisines.
Moroccan Tagine Cooking! at Casa di Mazzaro's, 3001 22nd Ave N, St. Petersburg, FL 33713 (This is the home goods store that is across the parking lot from the Mazzaro's deli. Moroccan food at the Mazzaro's home store's class kitchen.

Chicken Tagine with fried plums
Butter fresh herb couscous
Grilled carrots with sundried tomato vinaigrette
Honey ice cream
                              
Moroccan Tagine Cooking! at Casa di Mazzaro's, 3001 22nd Ave N, St. Petersburg, FL 33713 (This is the home goods store that is across the parking lot from the Mazzaro's deli. Moroccan food at the Mazzaro's home store's class kitchen. Chicken Tagine with fried plums Butter fresh herb couscous Grilled carrots with sundried tomato vinaigrette Honey ice cream                                [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 6

The best part of taking a cooking class with chef Craig Tinling at Mazzaro’s is he is generous with all the tips and tricks he’s learned over the years. That was helpful at a recent class on Moroccan tagine cooking in the expansive kitchen in the back of Casa di Mazzaro, the housewares and gift shop that sits next to the beloved Italian deli in St. Petersburg.

Every class picks a different cuisine. You’ll find everything from German classics to the Greek Isles to a way to wow your guests with a Mezza Charcuterie board.

I chose Moroccan since I love the food but had never made it. I’d also never used a tagine before. Pronounced “tay-jean,” the cone-shaped cooking pot is like an ancient slow cooker that uses the shape of the dome to return moisture to the base of the tagine to create a flavorful dish for even inexpensive cuts of meat.

Grilled carrots with sundried tomato vinaigrette, as prepared during a Moroccan Tagine Cooking class on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at Casa di Mazzaro's in St. Petersburg.
Grilled carrots with sundried tomato vinaigrette, as prepared during a Moroccan Tagine Cooking class on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at Casa di Mazzaro's in St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The main dish was chicken tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish of chicken pieces braised with spices, garlic, onion and dried fruits, with a kick of spicy harissa paste and fresh herbs. It was a festive-looking dish that was both company-worthy and easy enough to throw together on a weeknight.

The chicken was accompanied by fat pearled couscous with saffron and ginger, and a beautiful carrot salad with harissa, feta and mint. Dessert was a homemade honey ice cream that was sandwiched between squares of phyllo dough that we had brushed with butter and sugar and topped with nuts before popping in the oven. The combination of a crunchy baklava-style crumble and the dreamy ice cream was fantastic.

So what did I learn? Because the lid of the tagine traps steam, it cooks meats and vegetables to buttery tenderness. The cookers cost $60 to $120 and are lovely to look at, but you can mimic the braising in a Dutch oven or heavy covered skillet.

But some of my favorite tips were his quick little time-savers. Take cilantro, which I had just spent a good amount of time stripping leaves off for a Mexican dish a few nights before. Those stems have a lot of flavor, Chef Tinling said. So he had us take the bouquet of cilantro and roll it into a tight ball and then just chop it all up together. He also showed us a fast tip with garlic that I should have realized years ago. I usually smack the garlic clove hard with the side of my knife to loosen the paper skin. Instead of a hard whack, he had us lean on it, using a little weight on the knife to smoosh the garlic into a nice paste, just as the paper slips easily off. And for the carrot salad, instead of spending a lot of time making julienned carrot sticks, he just used a potato peeler to make long lovely strings.

We also learned that couscous tastes better if slightly browned first in the pan. He said that’s also true of ravioli and orzo and other pastas, so good to know. But you have to be patient and let it sit for a few minutes before stirring.

And I’ve always been intimidated by phyllo. It’s so delicate and papery I was sure my clumsy fingers would rip it apart when trying to work with it. But using a sheet pan, we laid out one sheet of the phyllo and brushed it with melted butter (up and down, not side-to-side to keep it intact), then sprinkled it with sugar. We repeated that four times and then topped it with chopped nuts, baking them until golden.

Chef Tinling then cut those sheets into square pieces and made the ice cream sandwich, which he topped with a little lemon zest. That crunchy, creamy combination could elevate any store-bought ice cream.

Classes cost $69. casadimazzaro.com.

Chicken Tagine with Dried Fruits

SPICE RUB FOR THE CHICKEN:

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into ½-inch cubes

TAGINE:

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

1 yellow onion thinly sliced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger

2 tablespoons preserved lemon, rind only (or you can substitute lemon zest and fresh lemon juice)

1 tablespoon harissa paste, more or less to taste

¼ cup dried apricots

¼ cup golden raisins

1 ½ cups chicken broth

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine spices and chicken and set aside

To a tagine or Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon of oil. When oil is shimmering, add onions. Reduce heat to medium and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Transfer onions to a small bowl.

Return tagine or Dutch oven to medium-high heat and add remaining oil and chicken, cooking until lightly browned, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute until fragrant. Next, add onions, lemon, harissa, apricots, raisins and chicken broth. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until the chicken is very tender, about 25 minutes.

Just before serving, add the cilantro and parsley and simmer for about 3 minutes to reduce the juices and meld the flavors. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.

Butter fresh herb couscous, as prepared during a Moroccan Tagine Cooking class on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at Casa di Mazzaro's in St. Petersburg.
Butter fresh herb couscous, as prepared during a Moroccan Tagine Cooking class on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at Casa di Mazzaro's in St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Couscous with Saffron and Ginger

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 ½ cups pearled couscous

1 large shallot, minced

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

⅛ teaspoon saffron, crushed

1 ½ cups chicken broth

½ cup water

2 tablespoons minced ginger

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

1 lemon, halved

In a medium saucepan with a lid set over high heat, add oil. When oil is shimmering, add couscous and toast for several minutes until lightly browned, letting it sit for a few minutes between stirs. Add shallot and cook until soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add saffron, chicken broth and water. Cover couscous and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, stirring occasionally for 8 minutes.

When couscous is cooked through and the liquid is absorbed, remove the lid and add ginger, butter and herbs. Increase heat to medium and saute until flavors meld and ginger softens, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and a couple of squeezes of lemon juice.

Carrot Salad with Harissa, Feta and Mint

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground caraway seeds

1 teaspoon harissa, or more to taste

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon honey

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pound (4 cups) of julienned or strings of carrot strips

¼ cup finely chopped cilantro

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

½ cup chopped fresh mint

4 ounces feta, crumbled

To a small skillet over medium heat, add oil. When oil is shimmering, add garlic, cumin, caraway seeds and harissa. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and add cinnamon, paprika, honey and lemon juice, seasoning generously with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, combine carrots, herbs and feta. Pour dressing over top and toss. (The flavors will enhance as it marinates, so this is a good salad to make ahead of time.)